Yacht Racing

Last Sunday, with sunny skies and wind building from the west, I hopped on Bill Records’s  boat and started the second race of the Spring series at the Austin Yacht Club.  I’m here with three other people crewing on Bill’s Pearson 26, Cafe au Lait.  Emy is a college student, Charlie’s in real estate and Karen, like me, works in high tech.

Bill’s been around the club since the late 70s so he knows these waters and how to win a yacht race.  My nickname for Bill is “The Mayor” — he knows everyone and he’s so outgoing, quick with a smile and a joke.  I met Bill three years ago when he was “Coach Bill” for Anna’s sailing summer camp, before we joined the club.

“Austin Yacht Club” sounds funny to me.  “Yacht Club” makes me think stuffy old rich guys in a blue blazers and tassel loafers.  AYC is nothing like that.  No stuffiness here.  Too many kids, flip flops and chips n queso for stuffy.

The Club’s been here since 1951 and occupies a gorgeous stretch of land on Beacon Cove, about 25 minutes from downtown Austin.  I like the way another member put it, “when you come through the front gate, it’s like you’re on vacation.”  The grounds are

Yacht Club dock.  (photo credit:  Steve Ward)

filled with oak trees and the water is, of course, lovely.

My wife is a smart woman.  She’s nudged me to join the club a few times over the past many years.  She was so right.  I’m glad I finally joined late last year.

It’s a great place for me (for our whole family, really).  There are so many interesting, fun and generous people at the Club.

Kate and Coleman do a fantastic job running the Junior sailing program which is growing and filling the calendar with kids events.

Early this year I went to a meeting of the sail training committee.  I was amazed at the experience of the people in the room.  Carolyn was on a winning Mallory Cup team.  Linda McDavitt, a member, is half way through the Clipper Round the World race (in QINGDAO, China at the moment).  Another member said he’s been sailing for sixty years.  Harry is a US Coast Guard Captain and used to run a sailing school in Dallas.  Susan and Brad raced for decades and used to run a boat dealership in Dallas before moving down to Austin.

The crew hard at work (photo credit:  Steve Ward)

Right before our race started Bill called for a sail change to a smaller jib.  Good thing because the wind kept building and the bigger jib would have been way too much.  On our last downwind leg a big gust — high 20s, I’m guessing — caused us to broach and round up (translation, tip over and soak the people, sails and cockpit)!

In the end we got the boat back on its feet, pulled down and stowed the too big spinnaker sail and got back into the race.  We managed to stay in front and win our class (our second in a row).

I had great fun sailing with Bill, Emy, Charlie and Karen.  I can’t wait to get out there again.

The winning crew on Sunday:  (l-r) Karen, Bill, Emy, Charlie and me.  (photo credit:  Steven)

Boating App: Navionics Boating

“Wow, where can I get that?”

That’s what boaters ask when I show off Navionics Boating.

This $9.99 app gives lake sailors features that our coastal and Great Lakes cousins use on chartplotters costing thousands of dollars.  You can even get some features in a free version of the app but the included government charts are lower detail.

I’m not saying I need full-featured charting on my lake (about 2 miles at its widest), or that the iPhone screen is a substitute for bluewater electronics.  But it is pretty cool to have similar data when I’m tacking around Lake Travis for an afternoon.

Last month I used Navionics to set the anchor for a race committee boat when we couldn’t find a spot shallow enough to drop anchor.  The onboard depth finder was fine for measuring depth where we were.  Finding where to go – now that’s better!  Using Navionics we motored around to a shallower spot and dropped anchor there.

Local readers will know that Lake Travis’s depth changes dramatically (up 50 feet this year alone).  So it’s great that Navionics has level adjustment.  Just look up the current lake level and punch in the adjustment (minus 11 feet, for example) before your trip.  Now all the charted depths are accurate for the current level.

I used Navionics on our family charter in Puerto Rico this summer and the charts were a nice backup to the boat’s chart plotter (Puerto Rico was an extra $14.99).

Boating is available for iPhone and Android.  Although I haven’t used it much, it also has crowd-sourced charts that include updates on marinas and other points of interest added by fellow boaters.

A screenshot below of a trip this summer using Boating.


Chart of Lake Travis, Austin, TX on my iPhone.  Notice the dramatic depth contours in just a few hundred feet.  It’s nice to know where the deep (and shallow!) spots are.




(Feature photo:  Flying Juniors in the Austin Yacht Club Centerboard Regatta, Sept 12.  Photo credit:  Steve Ward)

The white Hobie 16 catamaran is flipped over on its side, one hull floating the other seven feet off the water.  The righting line is supposed to help us flip it back over.  So I’m holding the rope and hanging with all my weight.  It’s not working.

The Hobie Cat 16 is the classic beach catamaran designed by Hobie Alter in California and first sold in 1969.  It’s a rocket ship of a boat, fast and light.  More than 100,000 were sold, bringing fast, fun sailing to the masses (source: hobiecat.com).

Without gloves the rope is biting into my fingers.   I can bear it for two minutes before I have to let go and drop into the lake.  We climb back on the overturned hull and try again.

I’m here because I offered to crew this morning at the end-of-summer AYC Centerboard Regatta.

The second floor clubhouse was electric when I arrived at 9:30 on the breezy, sunny Saturday morning (I’m keen on logging racing hours to meet the club’s 15-event minimum for new members).  Kids are running around in life vests, rash guards and flip-flops.  Hot coffee and donuts are being consumed by all.  The emcee has to call for quiet over the mic more than once to settle the crowd of sailors eager to get on the water.

The commodore and race committee talk us through the rules for the day.  They talk about the floating race markers, which direction to round them (left or right), fleet starting sequences, penalties and more.

On the water Evan and I get a rocky start.  We’re both new to this type of racing, so we have a lot to learn.

A Nacra Catamaran in the AYC Centerboard Regatta.

Minutes into the first race we have two problems:  the mainsheet* traveler is binding and the sail’s not up all the way.  We unhook the block and sheet and try to figure out what’s wrong.  After struggling around the course, we sail back to the dock to work on the problem.  This is Evan’s very first time sailing the boat, so he doesn’t have a hang of the rigging yet.  When we haul on the main the traveler should slide smoothly – but it won’t.  It’s binding and making a mess of our sailing.

On my iPhone we find a groovy 80s video on “Rigging a Hobie 16.”  I watch while searching for water and a snack.  About two-thirds into the grainy video the host demonstrates rigging the mainsheet through blocks, fairlead cam cleat, traveler and finally a padeye on deck.

Back on the boat we follow the instructions and the sheet works smoothly now.  We sail back out and instead of re-entering the race we spend the rest of the afternoon learning the boat.

Evan’s Hobie 16 started as a Hobie Mexico Worlds Race boat in 2004.  He bought it on the secondary market for a great deal.  The hull and sails are covered with big name sponsors (e.g., Dell, Coca-Cola).

A foiling Moth, rumored to sail over 20 knots.

With the boat properly rigged we gradually improve our tacks and other maneuvering.  Evan’s on helm and main, I’m on jib sheets.  Hobie Cats are notoriously hard to tack, so we spend several rounds trying to perfect the move.

Finally, we start to get the hang of things.  As the wind puffs we get more confident and start pointing higher which makes the boat lean way over.  We have to hike out to windward, using our weight to counter the boat’s desire to dunk us again.  Now the speed is really coming on.  We slice through the water, passing other boats now (we’re not racing, just cruising around the lake).  We’re catching power boats and gaining on much larger sailboats with ease.

“This is why I got this boat,” Evan yells with a big grin.  It’s my turn to grin and yell when I hike out over the water from the trapeze for the first time.  It’s like dangling in a child’s bucket swing, skittering a foot above the water, nearly spinning out of control.


The secret to righting the boat was:  climb on the floating hull, stand, pull the righting rope down, clip onto our body harnesses and lean back.  In that position our weight is most effective and the sails slowly peel away and rise out of the water.  “Watch your head!  Unclip!” I said as the boat flopped over and stood upright.

I can’t wait to do it all again.


* A rope that controls the bottom of a sail is called a “sheet”

Sunfish and FJs competing in the Austin Yacht Club Centerboard Regatta.


(feature photo:  Flying Junior dinghies at AYC.  Photo credit:  Steve Ward)

“Are there any adult boats?” my wife asked.  Laura remembers the dinghy Anna sailed when she was five.  That boat, for kids up to 14, was the 8′ bathtub-shaped International Optimist – or, Opti as everyone calls it.

A few days later I’m standing on the same floating pavilion where Anna had sailing camp at Austin Yacht Club.  A couple dozen dinghies line the docks:  Flying Juniors, Lasers, Picos and Optis.  A handmade wooden Opti at the end hides under a canvas cover.  These boats are for kids in the junior program but on “free sail” Sundays in the summer member adults can sail them too.  Well, all but the Opti which is too small.

AYC's dinghies are used in the junior sailing programs. The University of Texas sailing program is also based at the club. (Photo credit: Steve Ward)
AYC’s dinghies are used in the junior sailing programs. The University of Texas sailing program is also based at the club. (Photo credit: Steve Ward)

For years I’ve wanted to sail a Laser – this was my chance.  The Laser is a popular, Olympic-class boat (over 200,000 boats in 140 countries according to the International Laser Class Association).  A winner from last America’s Cup, Tom Slingsby, took the gold in Lasers at the 2012 Olympics.

I stood in the 95 degree sun while an AYC coach graciously rigged the tiny mast, boom and white sail. I hop down, sit on the gunwale and put my feet in the cramped footwell.  I have to take off my water shoes, with all the lines and hiking straps in the way.

In the light breeze the boat inches away from the dock.  It’s easy going at first.  I’m only using two controls, tiller and sheet.  When I sheet-in, the skinny mast easily bends back, tightening the draft of the sail.

Whoa!  I have to be careful where I sit.

If I sit squarely on the gunwale in light wind the boat tips over.  I start to learn the motion and the controls.  It’s light air at first, then five minutes later the breeze builds.  When I push the tiller the boat carves smartly through tacks.  I’m all grins and laughing now.  The leeward “rail” dips into the water and I hike out to windward.

I have no idea how fast I’m going, but it feels like flying.

The Laser I sailed at AYC (Photo credit: Steve Ward).
The Laser I sailed at AYC (Photo credit: Steve Ward).

The next weekend I take Laura and Anna with me.  Together we sail on a Flying Junior (or “FJ”).  It’s bigger than a Laser and usually sailed by a team of two.  A few years ago the The University of Texas Sailing Team moved to AYC and trains on FJs there.

The girls loved it.  They sat up front and handled the jib sheets.  I sat in back and handled the main and steering.  Later Laura tells me she learned a lot in just that short time on the FJ.  I’m happy to hear it.  Small boats give such immediate, tangible feedback that you quickly feel what’s happening with the wind and the boat.

A Pico dinghy of the AYC Junior Sailing Program
A Pico dinghy of the AYC Junior Sailing Program